Students wanted respect for Hindu celebration of Diwali; school district agreed
Rocky Hill students and residents advocated for years for the school district to acknowledge the Hindu celebration of Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights.
The Board of Education recently unanimously approved the holiday for the 2023-2024 school calendar.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Zito said he is very pleased that the school board voted to include the observance of Diwali as a scheduled holiday on the district’s calendar.
“The board, led by our chairman, Mr. Brian Dillon, has been considering adding Diwali to the school calendar since conversations began with members of the public in November of 2021,” Zito said. “The board made this decision with the knowledge that roughly 30% of our students have strong cultural, religious, and familial ties to India.”
The five-day festival of Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over darkness with fireworks and diya (small containers filled with earth and oil) that are lit and placed inside and outside the homes. For this year, Diwali was celebrated on Oct. 24.
It is within about the last 10 years that the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr and the Hindu and Sikh holiday of Diwali began being recognized in schools, often in towns with large or growing Muslim, Hindu or Sikh populations.
Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said earlier this year that “districts are re-examining many practices in order to create a climate that is welcoming and respectful to all students and staff. Holidays are one of those elements.”
One of the primary champions for Diwali to be acknowledged in Rocky Hill, resident Haritha Nagabandi, has shared the message of the holiday through her presentations at the local community public library. She did so, she has said, as she believes that making Diwali a school holiday would help the town and students gain a better understanding of its cultural significance.
At a recent board meeting, members of the local Indian community spoke about the importance of the holiday being acknowledged by the school system.
Resident Tejal Vallum said that other surrounding towns and states have already approved the holiday for their school systems, such as Newington, Avon, South Windsor, and communities in New York state. She urged the school board to adopt it as well.
“Many, many families celebrate [the holiday across] the world. It is one of the largest celebrated holidays in India,” she said.
Resident Rajeev Desai, who was instrumental in helping to get the holiday on the school calendar in Newington, and is the founder of the Hindu Temple, Vallabhdham Temple, at 26 Church St., also supported the effort in Rocky Hill.
He said that in a community of about 21,000 people, there are more than 4,000 people from the population for celebrate the holiday.
“And we want to connect our next generation…our culture. We are using our new year celebration every year … The main purpose of this request is to connect our…vision, our culture and heritage,” he said.
West Hill Elementary School staff member Seetha Venkataraman said she would like to have the Diwali holiday off to celebrate.
“I’m here to support everyone…even if the kids get excused for the holiday, I don’t. I have to take a personal day off for the Diwali celebration, I have been like all four years: she said. “The last four years, I’ve been dressing up for the Divine, being in school, doing my duties, go home and then do my religious things.
“And even for the kids, it’s so tough, because in the morning, we have to do some stuff ... which we cannot, because we have to be in school. So I wanted to give you the staff perspective, because there are so many Indian staff under the school system, and they don’t get holidays,” she said.